Lions camp preview: Offense should be steadier


Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

After a 44-7 demolition of the Broncos that put the Lions at 6-2 in mid-November of last year, Jon Kitna's prediction of 10 wins seemed a fait accompli. Mike Martz's powerful offense was grinding opponents to dust, the defense had gone three straight weeks allowing 16 points or fewer, and games against Arizona, Minnesota and Kansas City were yet to come. Alas, the '07 Lions were a mirage. They went 1-7 in their final eight games, failing to post a winning record for the seventh consecutive year.

While the departed -- to San Francisco -- Martz is now a popular whipping boy in the Motor City because of his quarterback-killing ways (send everyone in a pass pattern and pray Kitna can throw it before getting sacked), the Lions' defense was the main culprit: It finished last in the NFL in points allowed, last in total yards allowed and second-to-last in pass yards allowed. Indeed, the secondary was an utter joke, and head coach Rod Marinelli's reputation as a defensive mastermind has taken a serious hit.

The worry headed to training camp, which begins July 24 in Allen Park, Mich., is that while the Lions picked up a bunch of new pieces to help with that beleaguered secondary, the front four has potentially gotten weaker. Now, you can make a convincing argument that without Martz's frenetic play calling, the Detroit defense will be on the field less, and can't help but improve its numbers. But the fact remains that this team will most likely be missing four starters from 2007's front seven, so it will have a lot of integration work to do. Oh, yeah, and the Lions also have to replace their starting running back.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: Kevin Jones is gone, so the starting tailback role is up for grabs. If one man is going to take control of the job and become an every-week fantasy starter, it's probably rookie Kevin Smith, who impressed the Lions in minicamp with his elusiveness and his serious approach. Tatum Bell is still on hand, as is Brian Calhoun, and rumors have abounded that Detroit could also add a big back, such as Najeh Davenport. But Jones is set up to succeed. The Lions will run the same offense he ran at Central Florida, where during his junior season he led the nation in rushing. He's a very good pass-catcher and a willing blocker. And neither Bell nor Calhoun has impressed during his stay in the Motor City. In fact, with the backfield as currently constituted, even if the team comes out of camp with a platoon, the 6-1 Smith would probably be the goal-line option.

The Lions lost left defensive end Kalimba Edwards to free agency (he's in Oakland), and while he was never a consistent sack artist, he does leave a void. Jared DeVries and Ikaika Alama-Francis figure to duke it out for the starting gig opposite Dewayne White, and that threesome makes me think the Lions might have an issue mustering a pass rush again this season.

Finally, in the cavalcade of defensive backs the team acquired this winter there's one interesting battle: for the starting cornerback spot opposite Brian Kelly. During minicamp, the Lions had holdover Travis Fisher, who was assuredly part of the problem in '07, starting on the right side, while Leigh Bodden was his backup. Bodden is the man Detroit acquired for Shaun Rogers, so you'd have to believe he'll be given every chance to get comfortable in this Tampa 2 scheme and win a starting job.

Fitting in: Other than at tailback, most of the rest of the changes on this team come on defense, which is a good thing:

• The Lions took LB Jordon Dizon out of the University of Colorado in the second round of April's draft, and figure to plug him in at middle linebacker, making him an IDP sleeper, as Paris Lenon moves to the strong side.

• Brian Kelly, who comes with a big rep at cornerback but actually lost his starting job to Phillip Buchanon in Tampa last year, isn't the man-to-man cover guy that someone like Bodden is. But he's eminently familiar with Marinelli's Cover 2 schemes, considering the two worked together as Bucs.

• The team added FS Dwight Smith, an off-field troublemaker in Minnesota, and he, too, is familiar with Marinelli from their days in Tampa.

Chuck Darby comes over from Seattle to replace Rogers at defensive tackle, where he'll play alongside Cory Redding, provided he can recover from a torn patellar tendon. And guess what? Darby, too, has experience playing under Marinelli in Tampa.

On the line: At least GM Matt Millen didn't use another first-rounder on a wide receiver, right? Still, second-guessers abounded after Millen picked OT Gosder Cherilus with the 17th pick in the draft, especially with several quality running backs (and OT Jeff Otah) still on the board. Usually first-round tackles are groomed to work on the left side, but Cherilus is a run-blocking specialist who'll play on the right (while Jeff Backus continues to work Jon Kitna's blind side), which means he'll pretty much be overpaid from jump street. Edwin Mulitalo is good at left guard, and Stephen Peterman was adequate replacing the disastrous Damien Woody at right guard. Dominic Raiola is a decent center. Overall, it's an unspectacular line that allowed 114 sacks the past two seasons, but at least part of that was Martz's fault. There should be holes for Smith, Bell et al, when they run.

On the mend: Calvin Johnson struggled through a back injury all year in '07 and is supposedly healthy now. Shaun McDonald, who figures to be the slot receiver, had knee surgery. Brian Calhoun has reportedly regained a lot of his speed after missing two full seasons because of a knee problem, and the team is very interested in looking at him as a pass-catching back during training camp. TE Dan Campbell missed almost all of last season with a torn triceps, but is expected back. And on defense, both Ernie Sims and Cory Redding had shoulder surgeries over the winter, and Daniel Bullocks had a knee issue taken care of.

The bottom line
What we all want to see is how quickly Kevin Smith can make the other backs in Detroit irrelevant. Rookies are never a sure thing, even when they're designated a starter during training camp (et tu, Brandon Jackson?), but Smith's competition certainly doesn't look ferocious. Keep an eye on whether the Lions sign a big back to vulture touchdowns, and also watch who starts the team's preseason games. If it's Smith, a fantasy star could be born.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.